Before we start I need to make it clear that this blog will be full of spoilers for the recent Rogue One and Suicide Squad, as well as last year’s The Force Awakens, and all of Star Wars in general, so proceed cautiously if things like this concern you.
So when I was watching Rogue One yesterday for the third time, at which point instead of watching the broad strokes of the story you instead focus on more of the details, it occurred to me that not only is Rogue One interesting in the fact that it kills off its entire leading cast (yes I said there were spoilers don’t complain that I didn’t warn you) but also how it kills them. Now of course, as most people know, there were extensive reshoots with Rogue One which may have drastically changed the outcome of how characters died, but that is a discussion for another day, today we will just be focusing on the movie as it is in cinemas.
Death is something that people usually don’t think about much in their lives, but it is one of those universal constants in the world that you can’t escape. People are often considered morose when they talk about death but it is a natural part of life, the other side of the coin, and I think I have been thinking about it more than usual this week as I have two funerals to attend in the days leading up to Christmas. While we don’t think about death that often, we are actually surrounded by it in the media in both the real, the horrors of Aleppo, and the unreal like in our popular media mediums TV, Movies, Music, Books and Video Games where more often than not we are the ones actively doling out the death. However, when we look at death in media it usually is there as a gimmick, oh it’s sweeps week, better kill off a recurring character to get those views, or an actor is leaving a show might as well get a rating boost, or it’s the end of act two, time for a character to die to motivate our protagonist for act three, or look it’s a bunch of henchmen for us to cannon fodder our way through till we get to a boss, or look it is a friendly animal/mech companion to keep me company, I’m sure they won’t die to save me, oh wait. Of course there are exceptions, like Six Feet Under which was set in a funeral home and dealt with these issues each week, John Wick which used death as the core motivating force for the whole film, or shows like Scrubs which routinely showed death in all its forms, indeed just this year we had Arrival that used the death of a child as the main motivator for Amy Adams’ character, or Hacksaw Ridge which used death as a way of showing the realities of war, but it also in the process championing life. Indeed even for Star Wars death is not an unknown commodity from Han dying at the hands of his own son, from Obi-Wan dying at the hands of his own Padawan, to Alderaan getting destroyed and onwards, but even here for many of the big deaths there was always a little cop-out at the end. So within this media landscape we have had Rogue One drop, and while Disney is not opposed to killing off characters, like Bambi’s mother, or that first 20 minutes of Up, it is still quite surprising that they permitted the entire main cast of this film to be killed off, even if it was the clear narrative option.
I think it is telling that in a year where we had a movie called Suicide Squad in which no major characters die, Rogue One has a much better response to death, indeed in many respects death is a constant presence in Rogue One, from the opening where Jyn’s mother Lyra is gunned down to the carnage of the third act, but what is interesting is how it different characters approach death. What would you die for?, this is the underlying question permeating Rogue One, and it is an interesting question to ask yourself, though as Rogue One shows we rarely get that chance.
We get the first answer with Lyra, who for better or worse dies for love but also more for stupidity, which yes I know sounds harsh and of course in times of great stress acting rationally is not always possible, but it is clear that instead of following the plan Lyra chooses to confront Krennic with a blaster in an attempt to protect her family and is killed after ignoring several requests to drop her weapon. It is tragic but this is a choice that many people make, when you have agency over your decisions sometimes you make the wrong choice and sometimes that has horrific consequences.
The next thing that people die for that Rogue One shows us is that oldest of reasons revenge. Revenge is a powerful motivator and as that old Klingon saying goes ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold’. This is clearly part of Jyn’s motivations for taking part in the assault at Scarif, the Empire took her family from her, first her mother, then her foster father, then her biological father. That desire to avenge them and attack not just the Empire but specifically to take revenge on Krennic the arbiter of those deaths can be seen in her last monologue on top of the command tower, as well as her needing to be restrained from attacking his body after being fatally wounded by Andor. Revenge is a powerful motivator for action, but as Rogue One shows it is inevitably a hollow rational. However, Rogue One counters this with the more powerful motivator what would you die for?, maybe you would die for redemption. For Andor in particular but also for those who join the main characters on the assault of Scarif, why are they joining up?, well, they have done horrific things for the Rebellion, sabotage, murder, assassinations and more, and they see this as being a conduit to redemption, to bring back some meaning in their lives. As Andor says himself he has been fighting this war since he was six years old and implying a similar story to Jyn’s with the loss of family and friends, and we have seen what he can do when we see him kill an innocent person because they could not fall into the Empires hands and were not capable of escaping. However, they all joined this suicide mission knowing they would most likely die in the process and against official orders because they needed that closure, that final redemptive act to wipe the slate clean. As well as this, redemption is behind the motivations of both Galen and Bodhi who are both looking to find closure after working for the Empire. Indeed this can be juxtaposed with Krennic who when warned “Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director” precedes to do just that, showing what would he die for, well selfish ambition that’s what.
Finally, we have that counterpoint of the Rebels and the Empire. A lot of Stormtroopers die in Rogue One, indeed a lot of Stormtroopers die throughout the Star Wars cannon but of all the participants theirs is the hardest to tie down with regards to motivation. Now if these Stormtroopers are still clones (which personally I don’t think is the case at this point) then they have been programmed from before birth so like biological machines they don’t really have any agency over their choices. However, if they are not clones (which dialogue in Rogue One tends to suggest) then what do they die for?, what is their motivation?, and here there isn’t a good answer. Is it power, is it a lack of choice, is it a faulty reasoning that what they are doing is right? While it is difficult to know, unfortunately, there are real life examples we can bring to bear to try and find some rational, and of course that real world example is the Nazis. Now, of course, there are other groups we can look at for comparisons but the Empire and later First Order are more often than not referred to as space-Nazi’s and it is a fair comparison, so it is the one we’ll use. Through extensive written documents (soldier’s letters) we can actually see an insight into why acted the way they did, though notions of group loyalty, civilisation, bringing order to perceived chaos, or just doing their job. This can be clearly compared to The Rebels fighting up above for them, what do they die for?, well they die because the Empire is evil so defeating it is the right thing to do. We see that it the actions of those fighting in the ships against a more advanced foe, flying through the shield aperture knowing that is was about to close and they would likely get stuck and unable to escape, drawing fire away from people using their own lives as a shield to give others the time they needed to succeed, going out into the fry to connect a communications cable even though you were hidden in your ship. The last thing people die for and to bring us back to the first point is love, both Lyra and Galen for their family, the bond between Chirrut and Baze, the bond between Jyn and Andor, love for others is what defines the Rebels from the Empire.
Finally the last thing Rogue One looks at is how do you approach death when it comes for you? Do you face death as Saw Gerrera indignant and defiant to the end, do you face it as K-2SO fighting for every last second to help those in need, or Bodhi with a sense of calm knowing that you had done everything you could have, or do face it in the arms of loved ones as your world collapses around you, do you face it comforted in your faith and the knowledge it will protect you now and in the future, do you see your own creation turned against you, do you find comfort in the knowledge you will see your friend again, or will you be the people of Jedha who had no idea they were looking death in the face until after it was too late.
So Rogue One, a fascinating prequel, a somewhat flawed film, but at its heart a meditation on death and the motivations for sacrifice and one of the most honest and wide-ranging reflections on death I have seen in cinema in quite a while.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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